DFL’s Daly Prayer

Some Think Local Official Can Upset Kline

Posted July 20, 2004 at 4:31pm

Minnesota Democrats smell upset when they talk about Burnsville City Councilwoman Teresa Daly, who is challenging freshman Rep. John Kline (R) in the Gopher State’s 2nd district.

They believe that Daly’s chances of unseating Kline received a boost last week when her campaign announced it had raised more than $250,000 in donations for the second quarter of the year, surpassing Kline’s take of $195,000 for the three-month period.

Daly’s recent fundraising success parallels that of fellow Democratic Farm Labor candidate Patty Wetterling, a child-safety crusader in the 6th district who has raised $350,000 in her bid to defeat two-term GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy.

But much like Wetterling, whose candidacy is getting national attention, Daly faces a tough uphill battle against an incumbent with a war chest roughly twice the size of her own — Kline has more than $600,000 cash on hand — in a Republican-leaning district.

Still, Daly, in contrast to Wetterling, is getting kudos from Democrats as a savvy political player with a bright future regardless of what happens this November.

Minnesota’s 2nd district currently has a 41 percent plurality of Republican voters, while Democrats make up 34 percent and independents account for a quarter of the voting population. Kline was aided considerably in 2002 by a GOP-led redistricting plan that helped him oust former Democratic Rep. Bill Luther after two previous attempts in 1998 and 2000.

Now, with a solidly Republican voter bloc in all but one county in the 2nd district, Kline campaign officials say they’re confident their candidate will be a shoo-in this November.

“I’ve done work on a lot of other campaigns before, and I’ve been through a lot of wars. This won’t be one of them,” said Steve Sutton, Kline’s chief of staff and campaign spokesman.

Kline led Daly 46 percent to 33 percent in a general election matchup in a Daly-sponsored poll released the last week of June. But only 39 percent of those surveyed said they would definitely vote to re-elect Kline in a district where Republicans enjoy a 7-point advantage in party identification.

This re-elect number, a Daly campaign officials insists, is “anemic” and indicates only tenuous support for Kline. Both his re-elect and horse-race numbers fail to reach the 50-percent mark of majority support traditionally held to ensure re-election for an incumbent.

“This race is still wide open,” said Daly’s campaign manager, Darin Broten. “When you’re below 50 percent, like both Kline and [President] Bush are right now, you’ve really lost the power typically afforded by incumbency.”

But Kline is not running under typical circumstances, say Minnesota GOP officials. For many Gopher State voters, they say, the 2002 Congressional election was less a vote about the actual candidates than a referendum on the troubled state DFL following the sudden death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) and the public outrage over what was perceived to be a highly politicized memorial service.

“2002 was a generic election,” Sutton says. “The question for many voters was not, ‘Am I voting for the right candidate?,’ but rather, ‘Am I voting for Wellstone’s legacy or am I too outraged at how things were handled after his death to do so?’

“Because of that, you still have significant amounts of people who haven’t formed a lasting opinion on candidates like John Kline yet,” Sutton said.

But if that’s the case, then Kline and Daly may be entering this race on a substantially leveled playing field — one in which both candidates must work to effectively “introduce” themselves to voters and sway an especially large undecided population, GOP and Democratic officials agree.

To that end, both candidates are now waging local issues-oriented campaigns in hopes of appealing to the district’s white-collar, suburbanite majority, who tend to favor centrist candidates with fiscally conservative but socially moderate policies, says Minneapolis-based political writer Barry Casselman.

“Local economics and tax cuts will play here, not pro-life versus pro-choice,” Casselman says. “The way to genuine success in Minnesota today is to appear closer to the middle than you really are, and Kline and Daly both realize this.”

Daly, for instance, has broken with the Democratic Party mainstream and given public support to President Bush’s tax cuts for the middle class.

Daly has also taken the offensive in this race, routinely criticizing Kline for his Congressional voting record on the environment and veterans’ benefits. Last week, she hand delivered a written invitation to Kline’s Burnsville office challenging him to a series of seven public debates.

Kline’s Washington office says the Congressman is “content to sit back and field her attacks as they come,” and issued a response that “Kline fully expects” to debate Daly “on neutral terms,” in an event sponsored by a non-partisan organization and “not her own publicity-seeking campaign.”

But this Congressional election may hinge less on issue-driven campaigning or public challenges like Daly’s and more on the 2004 presidential race.

“If Minnesotans are feeling good about the country and put a Republican in the White House, they’ll also be feeling good about their district and their state and will more than likely put a Republican back in the House too,” Casselman says.

“At the same time,” he adds, “if that happens, I don’t think we’ll have seen the last of Ms. Daly. If she plays her cards right, we’ll have to keep an eye on her in the future.”

Nicole Duran contributed to this report.